He walks in quietly. He walks in, with a small nod. Possibly a nod of appreciation. Possibly a nod of I know you’re not quite ready. Possibly a nod of I know you just walked in the door, and takes his seat.
Sometimes he walks over to the large historical mural of the town we may or may not reside in, and inspects its’ rendering for new additions that he might have missed from the day before. He touches the wood panel, a key covered in handwritten landmarks dulled by the smudge of syrup-covered fingers. She’ll be here soon too.
Sometimes he asks to see a menu. Sometimes he pretends to search for something new. But I know what he’ll settle with without fail. Two eggs, over medium, bacon crisp, American fries instead of hash browns, wheat toast. Sometimes he rattles off his order as if he has been dreaming about it all evening. Sometimes, he pauses between each breakfast item, as if he was unsure, as if, he just might order something different. If he’s feeling particularly warm, he may order pancakes in lieu of his dry, lonely wheat toast. There’s heartbreak in his eyes. In the way he holds my gaze, searching, waiting.
“What is your name?” he asks, “You must be new here,” he adds with a glimmer. I wonder when the last time was that he received a warm smile. When was the last time that he received a genuine dose of warmth in a greeting so simple as “Good Morning!”, laced with a tinge of surprise, the kind of surprise that speaks to the thought: “What the hell would anyone want to be doing here, with me, at 6:03am to ingest a standard two-egg breakfast?”.
Yesterday to be exact. Yesterday was the last time that this man received his daily dose of warmth. And the day before that most certainly. And most likely, the day before that one. Every morning, I smile my biggest smile. I say, “Good morning!” in a way that that a person who longs for an embrace, needs one. I say “Good Morning!” in a way that you cannot walk up to a stranger and give them a hug without serious social repercussions, so I give the man a psychic-hug with the warmth that I attempt to project with my “Good Morning!” Something deep inside me speaks to the sense that he needs this. That maybe at some point in his life he did in fact receive this, and for some reason he does not any more.
Sometimes Shirley comes in at 6:04 am. Shirley is the artist, and the historical mural is her continued life’s work. Shirley always orders The Bobby Flay, which is Secret Shirley Language for a half order of French toast. Sometimes Shirley will sneak in her dog, and a small booth-sized dog bed, and I’ll pretend to not notice, because dogs are warm. Before Shirley orders breakfast, and shortly after Shirley walks in the door, Shirley will move her already-poured coffee away from her self-assigned seat (the last booth by the window) and set it across from the man, and sit down. They’ll converse happily. They’ll walk over and look at the newest and tiniest additions to paint-laden wall, pointing, laughing.
When it is time for the man to order breakfast, it is also time for Shirley to return to her self-assigned seat. “She never wants to eat breakfast with me”, he told me quietly once.
“What is his name?” I ask one morning. There was a point when the man had asked for my name, and I for his. He proceeded to remember it, which is more than I could say in the current moment. “Al,” my boss responded. The man’s name was Al. Al was alone this morning.
“Good Morning!,” I smiled, “How are we doing today? Are we ready for breakfast?,” I asked. I had graduated to three-sentence greetings, infused with psychic-hugs.
“I’m ready for dinner,” he responded, exhausted.
Maybe he had been dreaming about this all evening. This was the most information I had received from him since our meeting. That maybe there was something or some reason he had been awake all night. My stomach turned, and I tried to fill the air with warmth:
“Wow, I bet! Do you have a job that keeps you up late?” Maybe he was a truck driver, I thought, That would make sense.
“I am a full time care-taker for my wife.” he responded heavily.
There was a short, extremely uncomfortable pause in our conversation. I did not know what to say. There was nothing I could say to make the conversation less surprisingly awkward. Maybe I should not have asked that question of a stranger.
“…and I think this morning, I’ll have two eggs. Over medium…with bacon crisp. And American French fries if I may please.”
Sometimes as I round the streetlamp-illuminated corner, sucking down what will be my only cigarette for the day, wiping the sleep from my eyes, thinking about how I should have put on eyeliner, because all girls wake up beautiful at 4:30 am before walking into their diner-job with the crescent moon setting behind them, I see him waiting there. The first time I saw him, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. My inner red-flags for general safety were being thrown out of my ears.
“I am alone, in an abandoned shell of a morning-twilight district, and there is a man sitting in his truck waiting for me to come into work,” I thought anxiously as I waited outside the dark restaurant for the door to be unlocked, holding my apron clenched in my pocket, staring at my ragged sneakers.
I look up. I refuse to be scared. I will look this man right in his eyes inside his red truck. He smiled a warm smile. The kind of smile you give in a way that that a person who longs for an embrace, needs one. The kind of smile that you give when you cannot walk up to a stranger and give them a hug without serious social repercussions, so he sends a psychic-hug instead, and waves. I am no longer afraid.
©Meghan Hollister, 2016
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